Pacific Rim Bureau (CNSNews.com) - Reports that a controversial Italian scientist has overseen the first clone pregnancy on behalf of a wealthy Arab caused a weekend storm around the world, but in Australia and elsewhere, leading bio-tech researchers are deeply skeptical about the claim.
Meanwhile a Christian ministry in the U.S. has argued that scientists claiming to be upset at the prospect are really only concerned about the effect it will have on public support for their chosen field -- the destructive cloning of embryos for stem cell research.
Italian fertility specialist Severino Antinori announced in March 2001 that he would shortly implant a cloned embryo into a woman's womb and hoped to be able to announce the birth of the first cloned baby within two years.
After a flurry of international interest and concern, he and his U.S. colleague, Panos Zavos of Lexington, Kentucky, slipped out of the headlines as the ethical debate focused increasingly on scientists' hopes that stem cells from embryos would one day cure disease.
Last week Antinori emerged into the limelight again, when he was reported as having told a think-thank in the Persian Gulf city of Abu Dhabi that a woman among his "thousands" of patients was eight weeks pregnant. The implication was that the baby is a clone of the woman's husband or partner.
"Our project is at a very advanced stage," the English-language Gulf News quoted him as telling a conference on genetic engineering and cloning in the United Arab Emirates.
The report said Antinori refused to given any information on the woman's nationality. There was also no indication of where the work, which is illegal in Italy, the U.S. and many other countries, had taken place.
He has since refused to clarify the report, although a British newspaper Sunday quoted an Italian friend of Antinori's as saying the scientist told him the father was a wealthy Arab, and that the experiment was being carried out "in a Muslim country."
An Italian paper quoted him as the weekend as declining comment other than to assert that he had always acted legally and in a way that respected human life.
The would-be cloning pioneer presents his efforts as an attempt to help infertile couples have children of their own. The procedure involves injecting genetic material from the male into an egg whose DNA has been removed, and then implanting it in the woman's womb. The child would be a genetic copy of his father, and share some physical characteristics.
New Scientist carried the story on its website at the weekend, prompting reaction from around the world.
Scientists called for clarity, many pointing out that animal cloning had been characterized by a high risk of fetal deformity, miscarriage and early death.
"It is totally outrageous and irresponsible to attempt cloning of humans when we know there is a very high probability of severe abnormalities, even if the baby survived to birth, which is extremely doubtful," said biology professor Rudolf Jaenisch of the Whitehead Institute at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
"In fact, death before birth would be the best outcome," he added.
Jaenisch, who works in the field of embryonic stem cell research, also expressed doubts that the claim was true.
Also highly skeptical was Alan Trounson, an IVF pioneer at Australia's Monash Institute of Reproduction and Development.
"Unless someone provides evidence, I don't imagine we will hear much more about it," he was quoted as saying.
Even skeptics among the scientists and ethicists responding over the weekend acknowledged that whatever the veracity of the claim, it was only a matter of time before someone did attempt a human cloning.
They also expressed concern about the well-being of cloned babies and the mothers carrying them.
"If Antinori's claim is true, it is a case of renegade science pursued at the risk of the life and health of women and children," said C. Ben Mitchell, a senior fellow of the Illinois-based Center for Bioethics and Human Dignity.
The cloning procedure is similar to the one used by British scientists to clone Dolly the sheep, the world's first cloned mammal. Dolly's creators have come out strongly against human reproductive cloning, citing a massive failure rate before they succeeded with Dolly.
The Roslin Institute said many cloned creatures died in a late stage of pregnancy or soon after birth, and only around two per cent of cloned embryos made it to term.
Recently it appeared that the five-and-a-half year old Dolly may be ageing prematurely, after arthritis was discovered in her knee and hip joints. As a result, the Roslin Institute's Dr. Harry Griffin warned that it would be unsafe to clone humans using the Dolly technique.
Antinori was asked about this issue at the Abu Dhabi conference. He conceded that Dolly was thought to be ageing prematurely, but claimed that cloning humans was very different from cloning sheep.
A Texas-based Christian organization said the main concern shared by scientists who have condemned Antinori was that the controversy could negatively affect their plans to pursue so-called "therapeutic" cloning.
Although most researchers at this time oppose reproductive cloning, many are in favor of "therapeutic" cloning - the cloning of human embryos to provide stem cells for research, after which they are destroyed.
Proponents call the procedure, which has been legalized in some countries, "therapeutic" because of the therapies stem cells may one day provide. Pro-lifers label it "destructive" cloning because of the fate of the embryo.
Dr. Ray Bohlin of Probe Ministries said in reaction to the Antinori reports that just because scientists condemn the Italian doctor, "this doesn't mean ... that most scientists are ethically opposed to human reproductive cloning."
"They simply believe the health risks are too great at this time. If most of these risks are eventually overcome, most scientists will drop their opposition."
Bohlin suggested that there was little difference between reproductive and "therapeutic" cloning - "innocent human beings are sacrificed in either case."
"Part of the unacceptable cost of human reproductive cloning in the view of many scientists is the harm done to public opinion towards therapeutic cloning," he said. "So don't be too overcome with gratitude towards scientific spokesman who condemn Antinori. It is largely self-serving."
Probe Ministries describes itself as a non-profit body whose mission is "to reclaim the primacy of Christian thought and values in Western culture through media, education, and literature."
Global Cloning Ban Wouldn't Work, Says Would-Be Cloning Pioneer in US (Jun. 21, 2001)
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